Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Missionary Tithe

For the past couple of years a mission organization has asked me to speak at their candidate school and I am asked to speak on what people need to when they get on the field. I have entitled these talks, “It’s Tuesday, Now What Do I Do?” In addition to what people need to do the first 12 months they are on the field I have a list of things new missionaries should not do! In this category I touch on the sticky issue of the missionary tithe.

At the outset let me state clearly that I am well aware we are not under the Mosaic Law and the tithe is not applicable for New Testament believers. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that giving ten percent is a good yardstick to gauge Christian stewardship. The little Baptist church I attended in Gardena, California drilled into me that a Christian should give, at a minimum, a tithe or we might be guilty of holy theft, i.e., robbing God! So, from the proceeds of my paper route, for every quarter I collected (yes, that was the months subscription in 1959) two and half cents of that two bits belonged to God. To this day I still remember the pride I took in placing my “tithe,” usually about a dollar and half, in an offering envelope each month. It’s one of the really great spiritual habits that were formed in my childhood. I still enjoy giving to God’s work.

When I arrived in Kenya as a missionary many years later there was a discussion among my colleagues on where the missionary tithe should go? I must admit, I have vacillated on this issue over the years. My friends on the field were adamant that the tithe should be given to the local church that a missionary was affiliated with on the field. I do indeed believe that the local church should receive the tithe, but the problem I had with that theory was that it gave a false impression, especially in developing country like Kenya, of how well that local assembly was doing.

Working among semi-nomadic tribes of Turkana and Pokot, the offering of 50 church attendees wouldn’t be enough to buy a half-kilo of beans. If, however, I put in my tithe then the church was almost self-supporting, able to pay the pastor a salary and going a long way in constructing a sanctuary. And, while my fellow missionary friends seemed to have no problem with reporting such church growth, I had a big problem with it. In addition to falsifying an autonomist national church to donors back home, the local church itself operates on a bogus assumption. Forty cents given by the congregation and forty dollars provided by the missionary is not congregational solvency, it’s an ecclesiastical ponzi scheme.

Additionally to be misleading, a missionary’s tithe sucks the life out of motivation for local Christians in the assembly in getting involved in their home church. There is no incentive for the national member to give to the church as their attitude is, “If it’s really important, the missionary will take care of it.”

I came to the conclusion that a missionary should not give a tithe on the field but to his/her home church back in the U.S., Korea, Philippines or wherever that missionary is from. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, I am coming to believe that the issue of money control is a sin against God.

We all know or have heard of people who withhold giving when they are offended or disagree with how money is spent by their local church. I do not see in Scripture where the Lord’s followers are given that power. I believe we have an obligation to give to the Lord’s work and I have a conviction (like Paul, I don’t speak by command but by persuasion) that my giving should not directly related to how it benefits me or, in the case of a missionary, my ministry. As a result of that persuasion, as a missionary on the field until today, I give to the local church of my membership, not my residence.

While a resident in Kenya of course I supported and raised money for many projects. But I never propped up a church with a false regular tithe. Indeed, I went out of my way, to the dismay of many African congregations, NOT to support their local church because I wanted to disciple them in the great gift of giving and not rob them of that joy, though they were not particularly happy with this aspect of spiritual growth.

To this day my wife and I tithe to our sending church. We also give weekly to the church we attend as well as to certain missionaries we support. And by the way, this is out of our salary, not from our organization. I think it’s unseemly for mission heads to tithe to their organization for the benefit of their own ministry.

Our gifts should be to God freely. If our giving is so we can control how the money is used I think we are not only cheating Him, but ourselves as well. That’s my opinion, but no doubt some would disagree.